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La femme à la potiche, 1872

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The few doubts expressed by Lemoisne in 1912 about whether this work had been painted in New Orleans were soon resolved, and it is generally accepted today that Woman with a Vase of Flowers, which bears the date 1872, was painted there by Degas soon after his arrival at the end of October of that year. An X-radiograph shows that shortly afterward, Degas made minor changes to the canvas, elaborating the bouquet, erasing what was perhaps an ornament in the chignon of the young woman’s hair, and reinscribing the date and signature. The sitter’s identity, on the other hand, has been the subject of more disagreement. At an early stage, she was identified as Estelle Musson, the nearly blind wife (and first cousin) of René De Gas, the artist’s brother;' John Rewald, in a long article providing important details on the American family, suggested Mme Challaire, a friend of Estelle’s. There is, however, no supporting evidence for Rewald’s claim in any published photographs, and, in view of Degas’s “boredom” with portrait painting (which is how he had characterized the subject ever since his stay in Italy), it is hard to understand why he would have persisted—for this same sitter appears in Young Woman Arranging a Bouquet (L306, Isaac Delgado Museum, New Orleans)—in painting someone who was not a member of his family and whom he had never met before his arrival in America. There is also the testimony of Lemoisne (more reliable than that of Gaston Musson, son of René and Estelle, who identified Mme Challaire) to the effect that René himself recognized the sitter here as his first wife.

This identification can, nevertheless, be challenged. It is difficult to see the same person in this woman with a vase and in the woman in a white muslin dress sitting on a
sofa (L313, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) whom Boggs, Rewald, and Byrnes, setting aside Lemoisne’s uncertainties (he calls her Mrs. William Bell), have correctly identified as Mme René De Gas, née Estelle Musson. Estelle’s soft gaze, darkened with blindness, is unlike the sterner, more willful look of the woman in this painting; the latter’s fea- tures are angular and determined, without that slightly flaccid softness characteristic of the young blind woman. One last point: Degas dated Woman with a Vase of Flowers 1872, at which time Estelle was pregnant with her fourth child, Jeanne, born 20 December 1872, to whom the painter was godfather. However, the young woman in this picture does not appear to be pregnant. We are therefore obliged to search elsewhere—though in the family itself, since Degas mentions only portraits of close relations. It is very possible that the sitter here is the same as the one who was to pose for The Invalid, and who has been clearly identified as Estelle’s older sister Désirée Musson (1838-1902). If we compare the present painting with the fine drawing that Degas did of Estelle during his stay in Bourg-en- Bresse in January 1865, where she appears together with her sister and mother, we find the same features, the rather heavy jaw and long nose—though here she is thinner and inevitably older. Degas was then thinking of marriage and family: “I am thirsting for order. I do not even regard a good woman as the enemy of this new method of existence,” he wrote to Henri Rouart. So perhaps he was not indifferent to the fate of this woman who was already an “old maid”—she was thirty-four years old—and it may have crossed his mind to follow in his brother’s footsteps and marry a cousin.

From the time of his arrival in New Orleans, Degas began painting more “by popular demand” than from his own inclination. Nothing, of course, would have been more natural than that the large American family should have wanted to see what the cousin from Paris could do. And so, on 11 November 1872, two weeks after his arrival, he wrote to Désiré Dihau: “All day long I am among these dear folk, painting and draw- ing, making portraits of the family.” In a letter to Frélich on 27 November, he was al- ready exasperated: “True, I am working little, but what I am doing is difficult. Family portraits must be done to suit the taste of the family, in impossible lighting, with many interruptions, and with models who are very affectionate but a little too bold—they take you much less seriously because you are their nephew or cousin.”* And when he wrote to his close friend Rouart on 5 December, already preparing for the trip back, he was totally disenchanted: “A few family portraits will be the sum total of my efforts.”

As we look at this Woman with a Vase of Flowers, it is hard to believe that it could have been a chore: as early as 1912, Lemoisne, who saw it as “one of the artist’s finest portraits,” praised “the powerful, detailed character of the head, lit somewhat harshly by the light from a window, creating strong shadows on one whole side of the face, whose calm and pensive expression is curiously opposed to the rather rough manner of its treatment.”

As in Woman Leaning near a Vase of Flowers, Degas gives importance to an accessory—the exotic flower surrounded by wide drooping leaves in a multicolored vase— pushing his sitter farther back and partly concealing her with the back of a chair. Yet, as in the other picture too, such artifice serves only to better accentuate the face, with its faraway gaze—though here the face is partially in shadow, and hasn’t that slightly sardonic expression. The brushwork is at once full and precise, the technique smooth, and the coloring sober yet brightened by an intense sidelong light that brings out the emerald of the leaves, the greens of the two walls, and the shadow that is cast. The light resonates quietly against the gold of the jewels set on the table and caresses the crumpled gloves and the soft golden beige dress of the young woman. The sitter adopts the pose that the painter has given her (perhaps she was somewhat taken aback by it, since it was so little in keeping with the concepts of painting and portraiture in America) and turns into the light that somewhat unprepossessing face, a face whose “saving touch of ugliness” her cousin from Paris doubtless appreciated.’


PROVENANCE: Michel Manzi, Paris; bought by Comte Isaac de Camondo, 18 June 1894, for Fr 16,000 (as “La femme aux fleurs”); his bequest to the Louvre 1911; exhibited 1914.

EXHIBITIONS: 1924 Paris, no. 39; 1931 Paris, Orangerie, no. 55; 1954, London, Tate Gallery, 24 April—7 June, Manet and His Circle, no. 54, repr.; 1969 Paris, no. 21, pl. 3; 1976-77, Paris, Grand Palais, 17 September 1976-3 January 1977, L’Amérique vue par PEurope, no. 342, repr.

SELECTED REFERENCES: Lemoisne 1912, pp. 45-46, pl. XV; Paris, Louvre, Camondo, 1914, no. 159; Rewald 1946 GBA, pp. 115-16, fig. 17; Lemoisne [1946- 49], II, no. 305; Boggs 1962, pp. 41, 126, pl. 76; 1965 New Orleans, pp. 24, 37, figs. 4, 17; Minervino 1974, no. 341, pl. XVIII (color); Paris, Louvre and Orsay, Peintures, 1986, III, p. 194, repr.



Institution Musée d'Orsay
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 65 x 34 cm













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